The film, Last Men in Aleppo was nominated for Best Documentary Feature and as this interview runs, Kareem Abeed (producer of Last Men In Aleppo) and Mahmoud Al-Hattar (co-founder of the White Helmets) will not be attending the 90th Academy Awards as their visas have not been approved. Al-Hattar’s application was rejected under section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Director Feras Fayyad takes us onto the streets of Aleppo in all its horrific detail with dismembered limbs, wounds and blood, as bombs are launched. Fayyad shows the White Helmet volunteers, never wanting to leave the city they call home. They want to save their city and the victims. Fayyad mentions how Russia has and continues to orchestrated a smear campaign against the film calling him a sympathizer with Syria and terrorists, planning to discredit his work and anyone who supports his work. His film he tells me tells the human side of what’s happening in Syria, showing the people who have a responsibility to their society and their family.
Read our chat below:
What made you want to tell the story of Aleppo?
I wanted to show how humans survive in a war environment. These citizens have nothing to defend their lives. I wanted to show how they use non-violence means of surviving. The media wants to focus on people leaving and fleeing, but never showed the inner conflict and the people who still live in Syria. I wanted to show how the resistance of the people who stay behind and have no intention of leaving. I wanted to show the inner conflict of what they can do for society and their family and that inner conflict was the core of the story.
You also have the White Helmets, not as an organization but about the people who know they can do something for their society. However, when they decide to do that, they find themselves in the conflict between their families and their responsibilities.
You show us what’s left behind and who is left behind. How did you find the stories of Khaled and Mahmoud?
I wanted to reflect on the conflict and how war can divide a family. I was looking for a father and brother, real relationships. I wanted to see people who had a great passion for doing something for their society.
Even though there’s all this darkness around him, Khaled was a great discovery. He still jokes and has this great energy despite the death threats and ugliness around him, he still manages to have fun.
They weren’t known as White Helmets before, they were known as Syria Civil Defence (SCD). They were saving lives, doing emergency work saving and rescuing their neighbors. I’d been around them for years and they were well known in their cities. It actually took a long time to convince them to appear in the film because they didn’t want to show off. They cared about the victims and the bodies of the victims more. I showed them the story and my ideas and my responsibility to tell the truth, but also that I wanted to show the suffering, the conflict and show them as humans, not heroes and not as victims.
What was it like for you as a filmmaker and what were you exposed to by being on the ground?
To film in Syria, the first thing you needed peace with was death. You could be killed at any moment, and if you survive, you’ll be attacked by Russian propaganda because your film is documenting these war crimes. If you survive telling the story and getting your footage, this exposure shows their crimes and what they’ve done in a country like Syria. It’s full evidence of a crime that is happening in front of people. It shows people the journeys and is documenting the war crimes that are happening in front of our eyes.
How long did you spend filming?
I started in 2013 and finished it in 2016. This is such unique circumstances that you couldn’t plan the next day because you didn’t know if you were going to survive. But we were able to survive and not hide the truth from people, we are able to show what’s really happening and not change history as those in power want to do and want to hide the reality.
In your speech at Sundance you talked about Donald Trump. Did you think it would be released when you have someone like him who is spreading hate about Syria through his ban?
It’s important for us to show what we can do and what we need to do to push the government and the Syrian government of what they need to do to make a change.
We have a responsibility to show the war crimes that are happening and there is no channel to show that, so this film is that channel to show that. It’s to show the justice system in the world and protecting our history that is briefly documented in this film.